The Red Flag of Socialism: The Labor Lyceum Building

Some clues to local history hide in plain sight. Such is the case with the building at 580 St. Paul Street, once known as the Progressive Working People’s Lyceum, a structure with deep roots in local labor and socialist politics.

Progressive Working People’s Lyceum Building, 580 St. Paul Street, ca. 1919. Note the name above the doorway, the male and female statues with tools on either side of the entrance, as well as the statue in the cornice with the torch of freedom. From: the Albert R. Stone Negative Collection, Rochester Museum & Science Center, Rochester, N.Y.

The Labor Lyceum began as a debating society. The group formed on December 6, 1896, after Frank A. Sieverman, Thomas J. Grady, George “Gad” Martindale, Morris Berman, and Robert Davidson sent out a call to members of the local Socialist Labor Party proposing the need for a society to “discuss in open debate various labor questions that come up for political consideration.”

The “political” descriptor was meant to be taken literally. Sieverman, Grady, Martindale, and Berman all ran for public office, and in later years the party would draw as much as 10% of the local popular vote.  

The Lyceum held meetings on Sunday afternoons from 3 to 5 PM. Gatherings were initially held in various halls, including the Shoemaker’s Hall at 17 Mumford Street. The location was appropriate since Sieverman, Grady, and Martindale were all members of that union. Beginning in 1898, the Lyceum met in the Common Council chambers at City Hall, which at the time permitted gatherings of outside organizations.

The Lyceum discussed various issues throughout its history, including temperance, socialism, unemployment, and American foreign policy. Speakers on all sides of any given issue were invited to talk. On the topic of God and the Bible, presenters included avowed agnostic Philip Jackson and Rev. William R. Taylor, the pastor of the Brick Presbyterian Church.

Despite earnest attempts at impartiality, discussions generally took on a socialist bent. Among the better-known presenters were anarchist Emma Goldman and the “Great Heretic,” Algernon Crapsey.

A February 4, 1911 speech by Kendrick P. Shedd, a German professor at the University of Rochester and a member of the party and the Lyceum, would end up having a major impact on the group. Shedd had opined that the red flag of socialism was extolled as the flag of brotherhood, “broader and deeper than the Stars and Stripes.”

The controversial remark led to a public outcry, stoked by Rochester’s Mayor Hiram Edgerton, who forbade Shedd the use of any school or public building under his control.

The speech hadn’t been presented under Lyceum auspices, but the group nevertheless protested the mayor’s action as “unsound and unconstitutional.” They went on to assure Mr. Shedd that they were “with him, heart, soul, and property in his fight for free speech in the city of Rochester and elsewhere.”

Following a meeting between the Lyceum and Shedd on February 26th in the privately-owned Schubert Theatre, the mayor banned all outside groups from use of the Common Council chambers in perpetuity. The Lyceum, in turn, decided to build a meeting place of their own.

Construction on the steel, brick, and granite building began in July 1912. Architects John Wengender and Francis C. Datz designed the $43,000 edifice, which featured a restaurant and bar in the basement to help defray building costs, a library, a gymnasium, and a 350-seat auditorium that played host to debates, concerts, and theatrical productions.

The 20,000 square foot building opened in 1913 and subsequently served as a meeting space for various groups, including the Lithuanian Literature Society, the Friends of the Soviet Union, the Workingmen’s Sick and Death Benefit Association, and the Arbeitsaengers Bund. The edifice also played host to various labor unions including the Bakers Union and the Roofers Union.

To manage all the activities the building coordinated, a new non-profit charitable corporation was formed, the Progressive Working Peoples Lyceum. At its height, the Lyceum had a membership of 2,500; at its close, it counted only 45 members.

Crowd gathering outside the Progressive Working People’s Lyceum ca. 1913. The participants supported the Garment Workers Union strike in support of better working conditions, an 8-hour workday, better pay for overtime, time off for holidays, and union recognition. From: the Albert R. Stone Negative Collection, Rochester Museum & Science Center, Rochester, N.Y.

With the decline in the American socialist movement after World War I, the Lyceum’s functions became less political and more social. The building continued to serve as one of the meeting spaces for Rochester’s German community, but by the mid-twentieth century, these activities had begun to decline as well.

The demise of the Lyceum came in 1976, when City Hall decided the Progressive Working People’s Lyceum, and the edifice it supported, no longer served a charitable purpose. Its tax-exempt status was revoked, and the building’s assessed valuation rose from $10,000 to $35,000. Not able to afford the higher costs, the group sold their building to the Pentecostal Miracle Deliverance Church the following year.

Pentecostal Miracle Deliverance Church, as seen from Bausch Street, ca. 1995. From: cityofrochester.gov/propinfo/

Today the only remnants of its socialist past are the exterior statuary: the man and woman with the tools of their trades, and the woman above the doorway with the book and torch of freedom, replicating the Statue of Liberty.

– Christopher Brennan

Pentecostal Miracle Deliverance Church entrance, ca. 2007. From: cityofrochester.gov/propinfo/

For Further Information:

Amie Alscheff, “Labor Lyceum: Served as Forum for Working People to Debate Politics,” Democrat and Chronicle, May 11, 2015, p. 4A.

“Candidates Nominated by the Socialist Labor Party,” Democrat and Chronicle, October 28, 1896, p. 5.

Jay Gallagher, “Lack of Use Spurs Sale of Labor Lyceum,” Times-Union, September 2, 1976, p. 1B.

“Ground Broken for New Home: Important Event for Working People’s Lyceum,” Democrat and Chronicle, July 14, 1912, p. 22.

“Investigation into Facts Concerning Shedd Address Ordered by School Board,” Democrat and Chronicle, February 7, 1911, p. 15.

“Labor Lyceum Indorses Shedd,” Democrat and Chronicle, February 13, 1911, p. 15.

“Labor Lyceum: New Organization for the Discussion of Political Questions,” Union and Advertiser, December 7, 1896, p. 10, col. 3.

Blake McKelvey, “His Honor, The Mayor of Rochester, 1900-1928,” Rochester History 31, no. 1 (January 1969).

Blake McKelvey, “A History of the Rochester Shoe Industry,” Rochester History 15, no. 2 (April 1953).

Blake McKelvey, “Rochester’s Ethnic Transformations,” Rochester History 25, no. 3 (July 1963).

Blake McKelvey,” Walter Rauschenbusch’s Rochester,” Rochester History 14, no. 4 (October 1952).

Bob Minzesheimer, “The Labor Lyceum,” Upstate Magazine, Democrat and Chronicle, November 22, 1981, p. 29.

“To Give Reception and Dance: Socialist League Will Open Up New Headquarters To-Night,” Democrat and Chronicle, January 29, 1913, p. 14, col. 4.

“A Working Man’s Club: Supporters of the Socialist Labor Party Form a Labor Debating Society,” Democrat and Chronicle, December 7, 1896, p. 13, col. 2.

Published in: on August 11, 2022 at 10:30 am  Comments (1)  

Are You Gonna Go My Way?: Deciphering the Direction of Local Domiciles

Have you ever noticed how some blocks in Rochester feature houses that were built in completely different directions? Or how buildings on one side of a certain street face the road head on while the structures on the other side of the same street meet the sidewalk at an angle? In order to find the reason behind these architectural eccentricities, I consulted the map collection here in the Local History & Genealogy division.

Culver Road offers a prime example of these phenomena. The photo below shows the east side of Culver between Westchester Avenue and Harwick Road. Notice how the two buildings pictured (1524 and 1514 Culver Road) were built at completely different angles.

1524 and 1514 Culver Road in between Westchester Avenue and Harwick Road. From: Googlemaps, 2022.

And as the current map of the area shows, this abrupt shift in house direction is not due to a bend in the road:

Culver Road between Westchester Avenue and Harwick Road. 1524 Culver faces a different direction from the surrounding residences. From: City of Rochester, 2022.

What accounts for the different directions? I found my first clue looking at the Rochester Plat Map from 1910. Below lies the same section of Culver Road between Westchester and Harwick before those side streets were laid out:

The same section of Culver Road ca. 1910. From: City of Rochester Plat Map, 1910.

The pink house then owned by a Mrs. Oouthout is now 1524 Culver. As the map suggests, houses on Culver in this era were designed with facades (fronts) that lay parallel with the road. This pattern would change as the area developed. By the time the plat map below was published in 1935, Harwick Road (then Harwick Street) and Westchester Avenue had been built:

From: City of Rochester Plat Map, 1935.

The blue house featured on the 1935 map is the same home depicted in pink in the 1910 map (now 1524 Culver). It appears that the newer homes and lots on this block were configured so that the sides of the buildings lay more or less parallel to the side streets of Westchester and Harwick.

One might conclude then that homes facing the road head on predate their surrounding side streets. But this isn’t always so. It seems that in some cases, when a section of the road already included a substantial property or two, later structures on the block were built in the same direction as these older homes, rather than falling in line with the newly developed side streets.

The section of Culver between East Main Street and Cedarwood Terrace offers a case in point:

The section of Culver Road just above East Main Street (in pink) ca. 1900. Cedarwood Terrace hasn’t been developed yet. Note that Culver formed the city’s eastern border with Brighton at the time. From: City of Rochester Plat Map, 1900.

In 1900, this section of Culver featured the homes of farmer Caleb K. Hobbie, architect Orlando K. Foote, and Dr. Peter J. Smith, all of which had facades that lay parallel with the road. Cedarwood Terrace (originally called Federal Street) was laid out less than ten years later, but all the homes built after its development faced the same direction as the original estates of Hobbie, Foote, and Smith.

From: City of Rochester plat map, 1910.

This remains the case today:

Culver between East Main Street and Cedarwood Terrace today. From: City of Rochester, 2022.

Looking over the previous three maps, one might assume that homes were built so that the sides of the buildings lay parallel to their property lines. But again, this isn’t always the case, as the homes in this 1910 plat map demonstrate:

From: City of Rochester Plat Map, 1910.

The front of these homes lie parallel with Culver, but their sides do not fall in line with the borders of their lots.

Property lines did, however, influence the route of Culver’s side streets, which explains why some are perpendicular to Culver and others are slanted. For example, while most of the side streets on Culver’s west side are perpendicular, Laurelton Road, Westchester Avenue, and Rocket Street, take this curious shape:

From: City of Rochester, 2022.

Why? Because they follow the property lines of the farms that took root in the area in the nineteenth century, as this map from 1900 demonstrates:

The farms of Henry Beardsley McGonegal and Henry Martin Jennings on Culver Road north of Bay Street ca. 1900. From: City of Rochester Plat Map, 1900.

So the next time you notice a seemingly erratic development of domiciles, it likely wasn’t done at random. A hidden pattern might reveal itself if you look into the past…

-Emily Morry

Published in: on July 28, 2022 at 5:46 pm  Comments (2)  

From Immigrant to the Hall of Fame: Doris Gudrun Fuchs

The Rochester area has boasted several Olympians over the years. Most of us have heard of Chris Lillis, Ryan Lochte, and Abby Wambach, but what about Doris Gudrun Fuchs?

Doris Gudrun Fuchs. From: Rochester Times-Union, November 7, 1964.

The daughter of Adelhard Fuchs and Anna Weisser, Doris Gudrun Fuchs was born in Villingen, Germany, on June 11, 1938. Fifteen months later, World War Two broke out.                  

The family moved around during the war, “to miss the bombs,” as Doris’ older sister Ingeborg explained. When the Russians arrived in Germany at the end of the conflict, the family fled to Czechoslovakia, where they spent three weeks in a refugee camp. The family immigrated in 1951 and settled in Rochester, where Adelhard went to work as a toolmaker at Alliance Tool and Die Corporation, which his brother Karl owned.

Adelhard Ernst Fuchs, circa 1956. From: National Archives and Records Administration.

Like many Germans in Rochester at the time, the family belonged to the Labor Lyceum, where Doris threw herself into sports. She competed in track, swimming, and gymnastics, the sport for which she is best remembered. She honed her skills at John Marshall High School, the Lyceum, and the Catholic Youth Organization gym on Chestnut Street.

In 1955, 16-year-old Doris competed in the American Athletic Union (AAU) National Gymnastics Meet. She finished first on the rings and the parallel bars and placed fourth in the women’s all-round competition. Her success spurred her desire to compete in the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, Australia, but she would need to overcome a couple hurdles first.

Doris’ sister Ingeborg Fuchs leaping over the long horse. From: Rochester Times-Union, April 23, 1955.

The first hurdle was to place well enough in the qualifying meet to fill one of the six available spots. After she tied for third, a bigger obstacle remained…becoming an American citizen.

The law at the time stated that no petition for naturalization could be filed earlier than five years after one’s arrival to the United States. In Doris’ case, August 8th, 1956. Another provision stipulated that no naturalization papers could be processed within 90 days of an election day during a presidential election year, which that year fell on November 6th.

Monroe County Clerk Walter Wickins, Congressman Harold Ostertag and others worked to skirt this stipulation and accelerate Doris’ naturalization process given her importance to the Olympic team. She took the oath of citizenship on August 28th, 1956, along with her sister Ingeborg (who qualified as an alternate).

The United States hadn’t yet earned its repute as a major player in Olympic gymnastics in the 1950s. Doris tied for 52nd on the parallel bars in the Melbourne games, but her ardor for competition did not abate.

She qualified for the 1960 Olympics in Rome, where the American team finished ninth. Her events included the balance beam, the long horse, the uneven parallel bars, and “free exercises.” Of the 234 gymnasts competing, she finished eighth in the uneven parallel bars, the first time an American had broken into the top ten! That led her to hope for better things for the 1964 games in Tokyo, when she would be 26.

Doris Fuchs on the balance beam, executing a split English handstand. From: Rochester Times-Union, May 26, 1952.

In the lead up to the event, she won four gold medals in the 1963 Pan-American Games in São Paulo, Brazil, as well as the medal for the uneven parallel bars in the May 1964 AAU National Gymnastics Championship.

In the Olympic qualifying competition, she tied for fifth, admitting her to the Olympic team for the third time. Unfortunately, she did not compete. At the last minute, Coach Vannie Edwards designated her an alternate. Doris’ teammates signed a petition asking for her reinstatement as an active competitor, but it was ignored.

Naturally, Doris was upset: “I could have helped our team win a gold medal, if I hadn’t been replaced.” She assumed the snub was because of her age, even though the youngest Russian gymnast was 25. Coach Edwards later acknowledged that he had made a mistake when the team did poorly, but by that time the games were over.

Doris Fuchs training for the Rome Olympics on the uneven parallel bars. From: Rochester Times-Union, April 27, 1960.

The fact that Doris Fuchs never medaled in the Olympics may be a function of the revolutionary nature of her moves or biased scoring among the judges. A case in point is her performance at the 1966 World Championships in Dortmund, Germany. In contrast to the then-common slow and deliberate performance on the uneven bars, she flew from bar to bar, making quick turns and spins, much as is seen today.

The crowd gave her a thunderous ovation, but the judges gave her low marks. The audience booed and stomped for almost an hour, hoping the judges would reverse their judgement. They never did. As Doris opined, “If I was a Russian, Japanese, or Czechoslovakian, the judges would not have hesitated to give me a 9.8 at least.” Inside Gymnastics magazine would later rank the performance as one of the Top 10 routines that changed gymnastics forever. In 1982, Doris Fuchs was inducted into the USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame in Indianapolis.

For those interested in seeing her in action, a YouTube video of an exhibition performance is available here:  https://tinyurl.com/3fk3crzx      

– Christopher Brennan

For Further Information:

“Alien Case File, Adelhard Ernst Fuchs,” National Archives and Records Administration (Kansas City, Mo.).

 Ancestry (http://www.ancestry.com : accessed June 9, 2022).

“City Gymnast Qualifies for Olympic Team,” Democrat and Chronicle, April 29, 1956, p. 1D.

“City’s Ginger Rodenbeck Wins Turner Events 3d,” Democrat and Chronicle, April 25, 1954, p. 5D.

“Doris Fuming Mad: Dropped from Team That ‘Needed Me,’” Rochester Times Union, October 22, 1964, p. 11C.

“Doris Plans to Bounce Back,” Rochester Times Union, November 7, 1964, p. 4A.

“Doris Really Sparkles,” Democrat and Chronicle, September 25, 1966, p. 2D.

“Four to Go,” Democrat and Chronicle, March 21, 1953, p. 16.

“Fuchs Girls Still Face Naturalization Barrier,” Democrat and Chronicle, May 8, 1956, p. 31.

“Fuchs Sisters to Get Citizenship Test November 8: Olympics Path Cleared,” Democrat and Chronicle, May 4, 1956, p. 29.

“Honored Third Time: Doris Fuchs Captures Berth on Olympic Gymnast Squad,” Democrat and Chronicle, August 30, 1964, p. 1D.

Bruce Koch, “Philadelphians Tie for Men’s AAU Gym Crown: Rochester Girl Takes 4th in Women’s Test,” Democrat and Chronicle, May 1, 1955, p. 1D.

Sean Lahman, “Roc Jocks: Fuchs was Three-Time Olympian,” Democrat and Chronicle, July 9, 2015, p. 1D.

“Mermaid Drill,” Democrat and Chronicle, March 1, 1953, p. 5D.

“Name: Doris Fuchs-Brause,” USA Gymnastics Hall of Fame (https://www.usagymlegacy.org/hof/name/ : accessed June 18, 2022).

“Olympians Join Citizenship Team: Cleared for Trip to Australia,” Democrat and Chronicle, August 29, 1956, p. 19.

“Replacement ‘Burns Up’ Doris,” Democrat and Chronicle, October 23, 1964, p. 1D.

Ike Shynook, “From the Glory of Rome, Doris Fuchs Comes Home,” Democrat and Chronicle, September 15, 1960, p. 43.

Red Smith, “Rochester Sister Pair Typifies Gymnasts,” Democrat and Chronicle, November 22, 1956, p. 4C.

“Upstate Personalities,” Upstate Magazine, Democrat and Chronicle, February 9, 1969, p. 2.

“U.S. Gymnast Winner to All Except Judges,” New York Daily News, September 25, 1966, p. 152.

Dave Warner, “Doris Fuchs Eyes Olympic Victory,” Democrat and Chronicle, April 30, 1956, p. 19.

Dave Warner, “Red Tape Threatens to Exclude City Girl from Fall Olympics,” Democrat and Chronicle, May 1, 1956, p. 1.

Published in: on July 14, 2022 at 10:30 am  Comments (3)  

Chasin’ the Past Pt. 5: Lost Jazz Clubs of Rochester

In honor of the CGI Rochester Jazz Festival’s triumphant return, Local History ROCs! is reviving its erstwhile series on the lost jazz clubs of Rochester. Previous installments detailed the history of renowned venues such as The Pythodd, Squeezer’s, the Cotton Club, and the Ridge Crest Inn. This week, we’ll explore the rise and fall of the Golden Grill Inn.

The former Golden Grill Inn (center) at 4775 Lake Avenue just south of Beach Avenue circa 1955. From: City of Rochester.

The lumbering structure at 4775 Lake Avenue that once housed the Golden Grill was originally built in the late nineteenth century as a seafood restaurant and inn. Known for many years as Kane’s Hotel, the establishment took root in Charlotte as the area experienced its heyday as a recreation destination.  

In the twilight decades of the nineteenth century, countless city dwellers flocked to Ontario Beach’s amusement park–then considered to be the “Coney Island of the West”–and the myriad entertainment and dining spaces that populated its surrounding streets.

The bustling Ontario Beach Park neighborhood circa 1895. From: the Collection of the Rochester Public Library’s Local History & Genealogy Division.

After the City dismantled the amusement park attractions (save for the carousel) in the 1910s, the other businesses in the vicinity suffered economically. John Kane sold his hotel in 1928, and the establishment switched hands for a couple of years before Arthur and Anna Titus purchased it in the early 1930s, dubbing it the Golden Grill Inn in 1934.

Arthur had formerly worked as a sales rep for a soap manufacturer, but Anna had ties to the local entertainment industry. Her family ran Bardo’s Inn in Gates, a supper club that largely featured African American touring artists performing for exclusively white audiences (a business model popularized by the famous Cotton Club in New York City, before it changed its policy in 1932).

A circa 1941 advertisement for the Golden Grill. Note the name of the orchestra, likely influenced by former Rochester resident, Emma Goldman. From: Rochester Times-Union, October 10, 1941.

The Golden Grill Inn, which offered dining and dancing in addition to music, initially focused on local acts, favoring those of the swing and Dixieland persuasion. Both the 7-piece Tailgate Ramblers and the Dixieland Ramblers earned regular weekend stints at the club over the course of the 1940s and 1950s.

During the latter decade, the venue drew two of the biggest names in the history of jazz music. Duke Ellington graced the Golden Grill stage in April 1956, while Louis Armstrong made two appearances at the venue.  

From: Democrat & Chronicle, April 8, 1956.

In 1951, 400 Satchmo fans made their way to the Golden Grill paying five dollars a pop, while an additional 200 people parked their cars near the club hoping to catch an earful. As the fans piled into the club, Armstrong sat in his dressing room with trombonist Jack Teagarden, listening to wire recordings of jazz music and playing along with his trumpet.

After the roof raising performance concluded at two in the morning, the ever energetic 51-year-old Armstrong raced the young members of the Dixieland Ramblers down to the beach and back to the club.

Satchmo’s sophomore appearance at the Golden Grill in 1955 also witnessed some afterhours antics. Once again the show ended at 2 a.m., but the band’s bus wasn’t due to leave Rochester until 4. Looking for a creative way to pass the time, Armstrong and his bandmates hopped across the street to Cappy Sexton’s hot dog stand, wherein they found a piano, and continued to jam until their time in Rochester came to a close.

Later that year, the Titus’ sold their booming business, which retained the Golden Grill name for a couple years until Ben Manning took ownership and rebranded the club the Mardi Gras in 1958.

Manning (née Menegazzi), a saxophone and clarinet player with the Duke Spinner band, extensively renovated the aging building at a cost of $70,000, and booked jazz legends such as trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie and drummer Gene Krupa in his first year of business.

From: Democrat & Chronicle, September 7, 1958.

Sadly, the club suffered a fire the following year that caused $50,000 worth of damage. Manning carried on the venue as a party house with live music for a couple years before leaving the business to open up the Blue Gardenia Restaurant in 1961.

A postcard from the infamous Blue Gardenia restaurant, which stood at 382 Empire Boulevard from 1961 from 1982. From: the Collection of the Rochester Public Library’s Local History & Genealogy Division.

The building Manning left behind went on to host a number of dining and entertainment establishments in the ensuing decades, including the Harbor Beach Club, Club Titanic, and NOLA’s. The former jazz hot spot is now home to Tropix Nightclub.

The former site of the Golden Grill Inn. From: Googlemaps, 2019.

-Emily Morry

You can view the rest of the Lost Jazz Clubs of Rochester series here:

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

Part 4

Published in: on June 22, 2022 at 5:40 pm  Comments (2)  

GENEALOGY BOOKS & PERIODICALS & A NEW GENEALOGY SPECIALIST, OH MY! – PART II – FINDING THE RIGHT LISTS

So much of genealogy research is composed of lists of surnames compiled by a dedicated few who know the results will help many others find their ancestors and build a family tree. These are often lists or indexes of:

  • those baptized, married, and buried in church parish records.
  • those buried in a particular cemetery.
  • the enlisted, the prisoners, the pensioners, and the casualties of a war.
  • passengers on sailing ships and steamships.
  • free African Americans in the 1600s, 1700s, and 1800s (before 1863).
  • census lists and land ownership.

Among lists closest to home are the Mount Hope Cemetery Rochester, New York Interment Index, Volume 1, 1837 to 1860, and Volume 4, 1893 to 1906. These two volumes were published by the Rochester Genealogical Society (RGS). Our division also has the 1995 editions of Volumes 2 and 3. 

Did one of your ancestors purchase land west of the Genesee River in the early 1800s? By the 1835 census, there were 267,634 inhabitants in the eight western counties of New York State. Karen E. Livsey’s Western New York Land Transactions, 1804-1824 and 1825-1835, lists surnames of land purchasers, most of whom made their transactions through the Holland Land Company. 

Photo by: Hope Christansen, 2022.

Perhaps one of your ancestors settled in Central New York in the 1800s. Potential research resources include the booklets published by the Central New York Genealogical Society that are shelved with our Tree Talks periodical collection. In addition to the annual Surname Indexes that the Society produces for its periodical, it also publishes annual abstracts and transcriptions of records at least 100 years old that are not already online. A sampling includes Abstracts of New York State Census 1825 and 1835, Abstracts of the Federal Census 1800, 1810, and 1820, and unique volumes like Payments to People Involved in Building the Erie Canal 1820-1821. All are also available for purchase from the Society.

Each list contains many potential stories. Indeed, researchers often publish, along with the list of surnames, as much biographical detail as can be found using sources like colony and court records, notarial records, town records, vital records, land records, church records, even journals and letters. These genealogical sketches include footnotes that refer readers to the diverse original sources. 

Excellent examples are volumes from the Great Migration Study Project, The Great Migration Begins, Immigrants to New England 1620-1633, Volumes 1-3 as well as a new book on the Winthrop Fleet and Early New England Families, 1641-1700, Volumes 1 and 2.   

Photo by: Hope Christansen, 2022.

Do you believe an ancestor came to America on the Mayflower? The division recently purchased The Mayflower Migration, Immigrants to Plymouth, 1620. In addition, we own 25 volumes of the “Silver Books” of the Mayflower Families that trace descendants for generations, and we subscribe to the periodical, Mayflower Descendant, A Journal of Pilgrim Genealogy & History.

Photo by: Hope Christansen, 2022.

Moving outside New England, recent acquisitions include Early Virginia Immigrants 1623-1666, Virginia Historical Genealogies, and San Francisco Ship Passenger Lists, Volume 1, published by the Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc. We also subscribe to the comprehensive Passenger and Immigration Index: A Reference Guide to Published Lists of about 500,000 Passengers Who Arrived in America in the Seventeenth, Eighteenth & Nineteenth Centuries and its annual Supplements which when completed may become the definitive reference.

Local lists with family stories can be found in Pioneer Families of the Town of Greece, Glenwood Cemetery, Lockport, New York, A Glimpse into its History, and the people Buried There, Volume I, and Pioneers of Steuben County, New York.

Photo by: Hope Christansen, 2022.

Be aware that you are likely to encounter name changes, misspellings and similar (though not related) names. You might end up following a false trail or reaching a dead end. American Ancestors magazine includes a regular feature entitled “Brick Walls,” which invites readers to ask for help. Internet Genealogy lists crowdsourcing platforms where you can ask for internet volunteers. And don’t forget that you can receive personal assistance from our genealogy specialist and reference staff! They are here to help you!

-Hope Christansen

Published in: on June 9, 2022 at 10:30 am  Comments (2)  

Deeply Rooted: Rochester’s Ukrainian Community, Part Two

The Ukrainian population in Rochester blossomed quickly in the early twentieth century, with members largely settling in the northeast quadrant of the city around Hudson Avenue, Joseph Avenue, Clifford Avenue, and Norton Street. Attempts to develop housing tracts for the community on North Goodman Street and even as far west as Mount Read Boulevard were for naught. The traditional neighborhood continued to host the majority of Rochester’s Ukrainian residents until the late twentieth century.

The Ukrainian National Home at Kelly and Joiner Streets, ca. August 1921. From: James D. Bratush, A Historical Documentary of the Ukrainian Community of Rochester, New York.

The growth of the community saw the rise of various organizations to meet its needs, including the Reading Club, the Brotherhood of St. George (later known as the Free Cossack Society), the St. Nicholas Society, Lesia Ukrainka Women’s Society, the Haydamaky Society, several branches of the Ukrainian National Association, an English-language night school for new immigrants, a Ukrainian-language summer school for children, and dance clubs.

As the number of organizations grew, so too did the need for a space to host their activities. The idea for a Ukrainian cultural center was envisioned as early as 1915, when members of the Free Cossack Society proposed what they initially called “The Ukrainian National Home,” as a joint project with the other Ukrainian groups. Fundraising was slow at first and then deferred because of the nation’s entry into World War I.

The effort was revived in 1921, and by August of that year, two small houses had been purchased at the corner of Kelly and Joiner Streets. Those sharing space in the buildings soon realized that the houses were inadequate. A new edifice, one built to their own specifications, was needed. Fundraising resumed.  

Ukrainian Civic Center Building Committee, ca. January 1936. From: James D. Bratush, A Historical Documentary of the Ukrainian Community of Rochester, New York

After obtaining a loan from the Ukrainian Workingmen’s Association of Scranton, Pennsylvania, crews broke ground for the “Ukrainian Civic Center” (as it was then called) on Joseph Avenue, between Eiffel Place and Avenue D, on July 26, 1936.

The cornerstone laying took place two months later, and the occasion was a cause of great celebration. Among the guests presenting remarks were Mayor Charles Stanton, Leroy E. Snyder (President of Gannett newspapers), Miroslav Sichynsky (President of the Ukrainian Workingmen’s Association), and James D. Bratush (Chair of the Building Committee).

The Center had an unofficial public opening on December 31, 1936, with a three-day-long grand opening from May 29–31, 1937. The new two-story brick structure included a gymnasium, showers, a bowling alley, a pool hall, a restaurant, a club room and a library, as well as an auditorium for dances and concerts. Later renamed and relocated, the facility is now known as the Ukrainian Cultural Center of Rochester and can be found at 1040 Jackson Road in Webster.

Ukrainian Civic Center on Joseph Avenue ca. 1936. From: James D. Bratush, A Historical Documentary of the Ukrainian Community of Rochester, New York.

The Ukrainian Civic Center would go on to serve as the headquarters for arguably the best known of all the Ukrainian institutions in Rochester, the Ukrainian Federal Credit Union. The eight founding members who signed the initial charter in July 1953 were: Vasyl Andrushin, Illa Demydenko, Dr. Hryhoryj Dmytriw, Volodymyr Hawrylak (a Ukrainian National Association advisor), Vasyl Ewanciw, Wasyl Kuchma, Alexander Papa, and Ivan Swereda. They became the credit union’s first employees and worked without pay in a small corner office of the civic center.

Thirty additional individuals attended the first members’ meeting that September, each of whom donated $25 ($750 total) to begin operations. For the next three decades, the UFCU operated out of the Civic Center building, but in 1987 the directors purchased a former health spa at 824 East Ridge Road in Irondequoit, to which it relocated the following year.

The new site not only provided administrative and service space for the institution, but also a library and meeting rooms for other groups. Today, the credit union has assets of $335 million dollars and 22,000 members in 13 locations across seven states spanning from Rochester, New York to Vancouver, Washington.

Ukrainian Federal Credit Union, East Ridge Road, Irondequoit, ca. April 2022. From:: Christopher Brennan, 2022.

– Christopher Brennan

For Further Information:

“About Us,” Ukrainian Federal Credit Union, accessed April 26, 2022, https://ukrainianfcu.org

James D. Bratush, A Historical Documentary of the Ukrainian Community of Rochester, New York, translated by Anastasia Smerychynska (Rochester, New York: Christopher Press, 1973).

“Civic Center Rites Slated,” Democrat and Chronicle, September 26, 1936, p. 5, col. 7.

“Cornerstone of Ukrainian Civic Center Laid by Mayor Stanton at Ceremony,” Democrat and Chronicle, September 27, 1936, p. 1B.

“Here’s To You, Rochester,” The Ukrainian Weekly 66, no. 44 (November 1, 1998), p. 7; digital image, accessed April 11, 2022, http://ukrweekly.com/archive/1998/The_Ukrainian_Weekly_1998-44.pdf   

“Mayor to Lay Cornerstone,” Democrat and Chronicle, September 20, 1936, p. 5B, col. 3.

“Ukrainian Credit Union Moves to Irondequoit,” Democrat and Chronicle, November 14, 1988, p. 10D. Wolodymyr “Mirko” Pylyshenko Library of Rochester Ukrainian History, Ukrainian Federal Credit Union.

Published in: on May 26, 2022 at 10:30 am  Leave a Comment  

Welcome Home:  A New Exhibit in Local History!

What do the Erie Canal, the Garbage Plate, and Rochester’s Flower City nickname have in common? None of them would exist were it not for immigrants. It is almost inconceivable to imagine what our city would be like without the contributions of émigrés.

Welcome Home: Celebrating Rochester’s Immigrants, a new exhibit in the Local History & Genealogy Division, showcases the myriad ways, big and small, in which foreign-born residents have made an impact on the city’s establishment, development, and identity.

A common expression holds that immigrants built America, and this is undoubtedly true in Rochester’s case. It was largely Irish immigrants who constructed the local section of the Erie Canal, the waterway that turned the fledgling village of Rochesterville into a boomtown and fostered the growth of several local industries in the nineteenth century.

Immigrants launched some of the major industries and companies for which Rochester is best known, including the nursery industry, Bausch + Lomb, and Garth Fagan Dance. These ventures contributed immeasurably to the city’s development, provided employment for vast numbers of immigrant and native-born Rochesterians, and helped the city achieve international recognition.

Jamaican immigrant Garth Fagan launched the first iteration of his dance company in 1970. The now internationally-acclaimed company has performed on every continent except Antarctica. From: the Collection of the Rochester Public Library’s Local History & Genealogy Division. Photo by Emily Morry, 2022.

While some of Rochester’s émigrés became captains of industry, many more started out in menial, low-paying jobs where they endured difficult or unsanitary working conditions, which led a considerable number of immigrants in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to join the labor movement to fight for more equitable workplaces.

Female garment workers on strike in 1913. Eastern European and Italian immigrants, largely women and children, fueled Rochester’s garment industry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. From: the Albert R. Stone Negative Collection, Rochester Museum & Science Center, Rochester, N.Y.

Just as they have contributed to the city’s economy, immigrants have also helped shape Rochester’s culinary identity. If it weren’t for immigrants, Rochesterians wouldn’t be able to enjoy the classic combination of a Zweigle’s white hot and a Genesee Beer—both products of companies founded by Germans. Nor would the city have its iconic culinary dish—the Garbage Plate, first concocted by a Greek immigrant in 1918.

And thanks to Rochester’s immigrant population, the city boasts an exceptionally diverse restaurant and food market scene, which has allowed emigrants to retain a taste of home, while giving native born residents the chance to broaden their culinary horizons.

Menus from Master Falafel and Budapest Restaurant, two of the many immigrant-owned restaurants that have graced Rochester in its history. From: the Collection of the Rochester Public Library’s Local History & Genealogy Division. Photo by: Emily Morry, 2022.

Immigrants have also enriched greater Rochester’s cultural landscape with music, dance, art, and other folkways and traditions from their homelands. Examples can be found in area cultural centers, at local performances and exhibitions, and at the many ethnic celebrations and festivals held in the community each year.

Chinese New Year decorations, representing just one of the many holidays celebrated by immigrants in the greater Rochester area. From: Shirley Zhang. Photo by: Emily Morry, 2022.

Beyond influencing our local culture, cuisine, and economic development, émigrés have made a tremendous impact on the social conscience of the city’s residents, providing opportunities for Rochesterians to become more politically aware and engaged with their national and global community.

Organizations established by both native Rochesterians and immigrants alike sealed the city’s reputation as a major refugee resettlement center, while local activist groups and individuals have demonstrated their support for our immigrant population via demonstrations, donation drives, and relief efforts.

Rochesterians rallying in support of Ukraine on February, 26, 2022. From: WXXI.

Welcome Home: Celebrating Rochester’s Immigrants marks a partnership between the Local History & Genealogy Division and a host of individuals and organizations who generously loaned materials to help us create a diverse visual narrative of Rochester’s multicultural past and present.

Special thanks to: Annunciation Greek Orthodox Church, Berka Mou, Casmic Reid, Christine Ridarsky, Foodlink, Ibero American Action League, Polish Community Archives, Priyanka Pariti, Polish Heritage Society of Rochester, Rochester International Academy, Rochester Museum & Science Center, Shirley Zhang, and Tamara Denysenko.

The exhibit is on view on the 2nd floor of the Rundel Memorial Library until December 31, 2022.

-Emily Morry

Published in: on May 12, 2022 at 10:30 am  Leave a Comment  

Deeply Rooted: Rochester’s Ukrainian Community, Part One

Rochesterians observed in horror as Russian forces invaded Ukraine on February 24, 2022. Stories of property destruction and atrocities to the population filled newspapers, television, and social media throughout the area. As Rochester residents looked for ways to assist, members of the local Ukrainian community were the primary actors, sending money, clothing, medical supplies, and other necessities to their ancestral homeland.

Some locals may not have been aware prior to the invasion that Rochester boasts a sizeable Ukrainian population. Just how large is the community? A Ukrainian National Association survey in 2018 (the most recent year for which figures are available) indicated there were 169,929 persons of Ukrainian descent in New York State. Of those, 11,451 individuals live in the greater Rochester area. Other sources put this figure closer to 40,000 people.

St. Josaphat’s Church, 345 Remington Street, Rochester, NY. From: James D. Bratush, A Historical Documentary of the Ukrainian Community of Rochester, New York.

The first known immigrant of Ukrainian descent in the area was Evstachiv Makohon, who arrived in Rochester from the village of Pukiv, in Rohatyn County in western Ukraine. The date of his arrival is a matter of some discussion. Some sources indicate he arrived in Rochester as early as 1899 while others claim he made his way here as late as 1902, after brief sojourns in Africa and Canada.

Regardless of when Makohon arrived, he found a home on Kelly Street between North Clinton and Hudson Avenues and gained employment as a tailor. He evidently found the city congenial, as other settlers from western Ukraine followed in his wake, including Peter Klymtziv, Anna Holowka, and Ivan Furmanchuk, all of whom settled in the same neighborhood. By 1910, there were said to be about 600 Ukrainians in the area; by 1918, their number had grown to about 4,000 people.

Interior of the first St. Josaphat’s Church, 345 Remington Street. From: James D. Bratush, A Historical Documentary of the Ukrainian Community of Rochester, New York.

As the community developed, it established a number of institutions in the area. Arguably the most important for the initial settlers was a church. The original Ukrainian émigrés were Ruthenian Rite Catholics (Roman Catholics with their own Orthodox-style rite). Not having a building of their own, they held regular worship meetings in private homes.

For important occasions, priests visited the area from Troy, Elmira Heights, Buffalo, and Auburn. In October 1908, Father Volodymyr Petriwskyj from Auburn organized the Fraternity of St. Josaphat, a branch of the Ukrainian National Association.

Established in Pennsylvania in 1894 as the Ruthenian National Union, the Ukrainian National Association was founded to provide insurance benefits to members who had lost relatives to mining accidents. It later expanded to become a fraternal group providing education, cultural support, and guidance services for Ukrainian immigrants adjusting to life in America. The first local officers were John Schwetz (President), Wasyl Lucyshyn (Treasurer), and John Iwaszkewycz (Secretary). Its Initial membership comprised 70 people.

Bishop Soter Ortynskyj, First Ruthenian Rite Bishop in the United States, consecrator of the original St. Josaphat’s Church on Remington Street. From: Eman Bonnici/FindaGrave.com. Used with permission.

A month after the group formed in 1908, it held a consequential meeting at St. Stanislaus Church on Hudson Avenue. Those present agreed to the formation of their own parish church named for St. Josaphat Kuncevyc (1584-1623). Three additional meetings discussed organizational matters.

At the last meeting, on June 28, 1909, attendees agreed to donate three-days salary toward the house of worship’s construction, from which $415.50 was raised. The new building was dedicated in April 1910 by the Ruthenian Bishop the Most Reverend Soter Ortynskyj, assisted by the pastor Father Eustachij Slivinskyj.

Surprisingly, the Remington Street church proved short-lived. The congregation moved in 1914, purchasing the former Evangelical Church building at 305 Hudson Avenue. Fifty years later, in 1964, the church moved to its present location, 940 East Ridge Road at Carter Street. Construction of the current complex was completed in 1979.

Ruthenian Catholic Church of St. Josaphat, 305 Hudson Avenue, Rochester, NY. From: James D. Barush, A Historical Documentary of the Ukrainian Community of Rochester, New York.

Today, the Ukrainian community in Rochester has two Catholic parishes (St. Josaphat’s and the Ukrainian Catholic Church of the Epiphany), one Orthodox parish (St. Mary the Protectress Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church), and two Pentecostal churches (Slavic Pentecostal Church in Spencerport and the Ukrainian Christian Pentecostal Church in Irondequoit). To this day, many of the services in all these churches are conducted in Ukrainian.

The second installment of this blog series will explore another set of Ukrainian institutions.

Current St. Josaphat’s Ukrainian Catholic Church, 940 East Ridge Road, Irondequoit, NY. From: Mike Crupi/Catholic Courier, Used with permission,

-Christopher Brennan

For Further Information:

“About Us,” Ukrainian National Association. Accessed April 11, 2022. https://unainc.org/una/about-us/.

James D. Bratush, A Historical Documentary of the Ukrainian Community of Rochester, New York, translated by Anastasia Smerychynska (Rochester, NY: Christopher Press, 1973).

“Ethnic Rochester: The Ukrainians,” Rochester Times Union, April 5, 1990, pp. 1, 10-11.

“Here’s To You, Rochester,” The Ukrainian Weekly 66, no. 44 (November 1, 1998), p. 7; digital image. Accessed April 11, 2022.  http://ukrweekly.com/archive/1998/The_Ukrainian_Weekly_1998-44.pdf.

“Historical Sketch of St. Josaphat’s Parish,” in St. Josaphat Ukrainian Catholic Church Seventy-Fifth Anniversary, 1909-1984 (Rochester, NY: the Church, 1984), pp. 47-49.

“The Ukrainian Connection,” Upstate Magazine, Democrat and Chronicle, April 10, 1977, p. 18-23.

“Ukrainian National Association,” Wikipedia. Accessed April 11, 2022. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ukrainian_National_Association.

Oleh Wolowyna, “Research Provides Data on Number of Ukrainians in U.S. and Cities,” Ukrainian Weekly. Accessed April 15, 2022.https://subscription.ukrweekly.com/2022/02/research-provides-data-on-number-of-ukrainians-in-u-s-and-cities.

Published in: on April 28, 2022 at 10:30 am  Comments (1)  

The Play’s The Thing: A Brief History of Cook’s Opera House, Part Two

Façade of Cook’s Opera House. From: Democrat & Chronicle, October 8, 1950.

At the close of our last blog post, the famed Cook’s Opera House, had just become victim to a disastrous fire. But, much like a phoenix, the theater rose from the ashes. It reopened on January 14, 1892, with brief remarks by Mayor William Carroll and a performance of the opera, Alessandro Stradella, followed a few days later by Gilbert and Sullivan’s H.M.S. Pinafore.

Still, for the next few decades, its primary offerings were vaudeville acts, including singers, dancers, comedians, magicians, musicians, and acrobats. Among the more famous performers to appear at Cook’s were Al Jolson, Lillian Russell, and Harry Houdini.

Houdini appeared for a week-long run starting on May 6, 1907. One of his performances included a jump from the old Erie Canal weighlock bridge. He was handcuffed but managed to free himself underwater. Among the reputed 10,000 onlookers were photographers from Eastman Kodak who filmed the stunt; it remains the oldest surviving footage of his performances. (The George Eastman Museum now owns the film, but those who wish to view it can also find it here.)

Portion of an Advertisement for Houdini’s May 1907 Performance. From: Democrat & Chronicle, May 5, 1907.

After Frederick Cook died in 1905, his partner Jacob Gerling inherited his share of the business. In 1912, Albert Fenyvessy acquired the venue, who renamed it the Family Theater, but the bill still featured vaudeville acts and the new medium of silent motion pictures.

It did not offer “talking pictures” until January 10, 1931, and was the last local theater to do so, more than three years after the October 1927 debut of the medium. In the intervening years, business had declined to the point that it never really recovered.

Stage View of the Family Theater (nee Cook’s Opera House, 1913). From: the Collection of the Rochester Public Library’s Local History & Genealogy Division.

By the 1930s, the taste of its clientele had changed, transitioning from magicians and comics to more risqué offerings. An October 1932 advertisement for the Family Theater promoted a performance by “Miss New Orleans and Her Living Models” for men only. The venue continued to showcase more family friendly fare as well.

Performance of Nat Fields Musical Comedy Company at the Family Theater, ca. 1920-1921. From: the Collection of the Rochester Public Library’s Local History & Genealogy Division.

The Loew’s Company purchased the building in 1937 and reopened it as the Embassy Theater, offering burlesque performances. American burlesque originally consisted of three kinds of acts: comic sketches or standup routines, often by ribald comics; short song and dance offerings; and an exotic dancer.

Among the more famous performers to be featured at the Embassy was African American comic Stepin Fetchit (real name Lincoln Perry) and exotic dancer Sally Rand (born Helen Beck), who played “peek a boo” with the audience, her body hidden by large ostrich feathers or a translucent bubble.

Albert Lebowitz, Manager of the Embassy Theater,
Arrested for Presenting an Indecent Show. From: Democrat & Chronicle, February 1, 1940.

Burlesque would be the Embassy Theater’s last offering. At least initially, these offerings were monitored to ensure compliance with existing obscenity laws. In February 1940, the theater’s manager, Albert Lebowitz, was arrested for permitting “an indecent, immoral and impure show and entertainment.”

Lebowitz denied the charge, claiming it was a “frame-up” but consented to a deal. The police would drop the charge in exchange for the surrender of his entertainment license; thereafter, Lebowitz returned to his previous field of employment, dentistry.

The Embassy continued its burlesque offerings for another dozen years, although its latter day focus was mostly strippers. The theater shut down for good after the May 1952 performances by Rose La Rose (real name Rosina De Pella). The theater was to close thereafter for the summer and then reopen in the fall but never did.

For years the edifice lay abandoned, and in 1958, the marquee crashed to the sidewalk. The city planned  to raze the building the following year, but the demolition was cancelled when it was discovered the old theatre shared a common wall with another business. In the 1970s, the city hatched further plans to redevelop the theater to its nineteenth century appearance as part of the “Canaltown” urban renewal project, but those plans too came to naught.

Its ultimate demise occurred on April 17, 1974, when a fire destroyed the building, after which it was demolished; a sad end to more than a century of entertainment in Rochester. Today, the Rochester Riverside Convention Center sits on the lot that witnessed performances by Al Jolson, Harry Houdini, Lillian Russell, and other notable entertainers.

The former site of Cook’s Opera House circa 1983, before the completion of the Rochester Riverside Convention Center. From: City of Rochester

-Christopher Brennan

For Further Information:

John H. Fenyvessy, “The First Ninety Years: A History of Rochester’s Opera House” (Ms., typescript, 1982).

“Houdini’s Rochester Bridge Jump,” Wild About Harry (https://www.wildabouthoudini.com/2018/08/houdinis-1907-rochester-bridge-jump.html : accessed March 17, 2022).

Bob Marcotte, “Downtown Rochester Stages Had Lively History,” Democrat and Chronicle, November 24, 2003, p. 2B.

Bob Marcotte, “Opera House Was Grand, But Its Fare Often Wasn’t,” Democrat and Chronicle, November 28, 2003, p. 2B.

Bob Marcotte, “Vaudeville Starred at Cook Theater,” Democrat and Chronicle, November 30, 2003, p. 4B.

Blake McKelvey, “Canaltown: A Focus of Historical Traditions,” Rochester History 37, no. 2 (April 1975).

Blake McKelvey, “The Theater in Rochester During Its First Nine Decades,” Rochester History 16, no. 3 (July 1954).

Arch Merrill, “102 Years of Theater Make This Our Historic Stage,” Democrat and Chronicle, October 8, 1950, p. 1C.

“Embassy Reopens for One Week,” Democrat and Chronicle, May 9, 1952, p. 32.

“Fire Jeopardizes Canaltown Plan,” Democrat and Chronicle, April 18, 1974, p. 3B.

“Manager Faces Morality Charge Over Burlesque,” Democrat and Chronicle, February 1, 1940, p. 13.

“Sudden Death of Frederick Cook,” Democrat and Chronicle, February 18, 1905, p. 14.

“Theater Barricaded: One More Step to Oblivion,” Democrat and Chronicle, June 20, 1962, p. 22.

“Theater’s Future Crumbling,” Democrat and Chronicle, July 14, 1972, p. 8B.

Published in: on April 14, 2022 at 10:30 am  Leave a Comment  

The Play’s The Thing: A History of Cook’s Opera House, Part One

Those who lived in Rochester during the 1990s and the first decade of the present century will remember the local discussion surrounding the need for a new performing arts center. While downtown is still home to some prominent entertainment facilities, an abundance of theaters once lined the streets of the center city, including the renowned Cook’s Opera House.   

In 1903, Rochester had five large theaters. By 1910, the number had increased to 19. Many of these newer venues may have been smaller vaudeville houses and movie theaters, but the multiplicity of such facilities suggests the demand. Unfortunately, in the intervening decades, many of these facilities were closed and demolished.

Arguably the oldest and most revered of these older theaters was Cook’s Opera House, located at 23-25 South Avenue. Called “Cook’s” by locals, the building had a long history that witnessed changes in owners, names, and theatrical formats.    

Cook’s Opera House on the west side of South St. Paul Street (now South Avenue), just below Main Street in 1900. From: City of Rochester Plat Map, 1900.
The Rochester Riverside Convention Center now stands where Cook’s Opera House once stood. From: City of Rochester, 2022.

The original theater on the site was built by Rochester pioneer Enos Stone. Begun in 1846 and opened in 1848 as the Metropolitan Theater, the three-story brick structure was situated on South St. Paul Street (now South Avenue) near Main Street. Among its offerings was the November 1857 production of Shakespeare’s Richard the Third, featuring the renowned American actor Edwin Booth, older brother of Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth.

Unfortunately, in this period much of Rochester was resistant to the magnetic attraction of the theater, leading to intermittent offerings between 1855 and 1859.

The Grand Opera House. From: Rochester History 37 no. 2 (April 1975)

Popular attendance increased after 1859 for two reasons. The first was the presentation of more popular offerings like tightrope walking. The second reason was the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, which led many people to come to the theater seeking a temporary distraction.

In 1865, the theater was remodeled and renamed the Rochester Grand Opera House. Yet, only four years later, disaster struck. On November 6, 1869, during a performance of “Black Eyed Susan,” a massive fire destroyed the theater and all its effects, toppling two walls and gutting the interior. The building manager, Thomas Carr, who slept on the premises, was lucky to escape with his life.

Interior of the Grand Opera House. From: the Collection of the Rochester Public Library’s Local History & Genealogy Division

The owners subsequently accepted a purchase offer from Brooklyn theatrical promoter, Charles Finke. Finke set out to make the theater larger and better than its predecessor. The new performance hall was 110 feet by 70 feet (7,700 sq. ft.), with a bigger stage and more commodious balconies.

It opened on May 12, 1871, with a production of Giuseppe Verdi’s opera Il Trovatore. The theater also witnessed an appearance by renowned actress Sarah Bernhardt in the drama Camille in March 1881. Not all of its offerings were high art, however.

One memorable performance on September 27, 1875, was an early Buffalo Bill Cody production, Life on the Border. Unfortunately, in 1891, the rebuilt opera house, like its predecessor, suffered a disastrous fire.

William Frederick “Buffalo Bill” Cody. From Democrat & Chronicle, October 8, 1950.

Just the year before, Finke had sold the theater to Frederick Cook and his partner Jacob Gerling for $62,500. Insurance covered only $30,000 of the cost, leaving the partners with a considerable loss. As the lead partner, Cook was the public face of the theater.

His life story reads like a Horatio Alger novel. Born in Wildbad, Germany, he arrived in America in October 1848 at the age of 15. After beginning his working life as a shoemaker’s apprentice, he later served as the Secretary of State of New York and the President of both the German American Bank and the Rochester Gas and Electric Company. His ownership of Cook’s Opera House represented just one of his many investments.

In reconstructing the theater under the talented supervision of renowned Rochester architect John Foster Warner, Cook created a structure that continued the large scale and grandeur of its predecessor. He extended the dimensions of the building, providing a larger stage door to ease the loading and unloading of props, nine dressing rooms, and additional fire exits.

The performance hall was outfitted with cream, buff, salmon, and terra cotta-colored decorations and 1,400 red plush seats. The new construction also allowed rental space for commercial enterprises, so Cook’s became a destination for patrons beyond theater goers. The venue re-opened for business in January 1892.  

To be continued…

-Christopher Brennan   

For Further Information:

John Fenyvessy – Family Theater Papers. [Volume 5]. Local History and Genealogy Division, Central Library of Rochester and Monroe County N.Y.

“Houdini’s Rochester Bridge Jump,” Wild About Harry (https://www.wildabouthoudini.com/2018/08/houdinis-1907-rochester-bridge-jump.html : accessed March 11, 2022).

Bob Marcotte, “Downtown Rochester Stages Had Lively History,” Democrat and Chronicle, November 24, 2003, p. 2B.

Bob Marcotte, “Opera House Was Grand, But Its Fare Often Wasn’t,” Democrat and Chronicle, November 28, 2003, p. 2B.

Bob Marcotte, “Vaudeville Starred at Cook Theater,” Democrat and Chronicle, November 30, 2003, p. 4B.

Blake McKelvey, “Canaltown: A Focus of Historical Traditions,” Rochester History 37, no. 2 (April 1975).

Blake McKelvey, “The Theater in Rochester During Its First Nine Decades,” Rochester History 16, no. 3 (July 1954).

“Fire Jeopardizes Canaltown Plan,” Democrat and Chronicle, April 18, 1974, p. 3B.

“Sudden Death of Frederick Cook,” Democrat and Chronicle, February 18, 1905, p. 14.

“Theater’s Future Crumbling,” Democrat and Chronicle, July 14, 1972, p. 8B.

Published in: on March 24, 2022 at 10:34 am  Comments (1)